Blowin’ Smoke is a recurring post on The “Model City” Firefighter that features an interview with different members of emergency services across the country. The intentions of the article is to share a small snapshot into the views and career experiences of these individuals, and highlight some of the differences that we share from the different parts of the country. If you would like to be featured in a Blowin’ Smoke article, contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My name is Rom Duckworth and I’m a career Fire Lieut. and Paramedic EMS Coordinator for the Ridgefield Fire Department where I’ve been for 16 years. Ours is a combination department with approximately 60 volunteers and 45 career staff serving the town of Ridgefield, Connecticut (about an hour outside of New York City) with fire, rescue, and paramedic transport EMS services. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some great firefighters locally as well as to meet brothers and sisters from around the world through my website RescueDigest, our podcast on FireChief.com and through conferences like FDIC, Fire Rescue International and others.
How many years have you served in the fire service, and has/is anyone else in your family on the job?
I began my career in the fire service a little more than 25 years ago. The first of my family to be involved in emergency services, I hadn’t really considered a career in the fire department until I took a first aid class in college. I was interested in learning more and was directed to take an EMT class with my local volunteer fire department. I was quickly adopted by the Squantz Engine Company of the New Fairfield Connecticut Volunteer Fire Department who said if they were to sponsor me for an EMT class, then I was going to learn to be a firefighter too. With every class I took and every call I went on it became more apparent to me that I had found my calling in the fire service.
What was your drive to make you want to join the fire service?
Simply put, I love solving problems. I enjoy working to acquire new knowledge, skills, and abilities when I work in a profession where I can apply them every single day. I can imagine a more satisfying job than one where people call you to help them solve problems, big and small, when they just don’t know what to do.
When I first joined my volunteer department in 1989, we had severe staffing problems. I found myself running drills and coordinating classes well before I was qualified to do so. While I’m not fond of looking back at some of the mistakes I may have made, I’m happy to say that I had some fantastic mentors who gave me the courage and motivation to step up and become a real educator. I found myself moving from running company drills, to organizing department events, to teaching other area departments, to being the training director for a regional trauma center. I now get the opportunity to travel all over the US and other countries delivering training programs. This gives me the opportunity to learn from the best in our profession and to share the best ideas from across the fire service. While I’m glad to have the chance to bring these ideas back to Ridgefield for my day-to-day job, I hope that through teaching at conferences, hosting podcasts on and RescueDigest.com, I get to be kind of the Johnny Appleseed of good ideas in the fire service; taking the best stuff we all think up and helping to spread them around to make everybody’s job a little easier.
Do you currently have any specific personal goals you would like to accomplish during your career, and have you completed any of those already?
My most immediate goal is to be successful in the promotional process to Captain in which I’m currently involved. Beyond that, I’m thankful for every day that I get to work as an emergency responder and to travel around meeting brother and sister firefighters from around the world.
What is the biggest change that you have witnessed since joining the fire service?
Despite the common joke about the fire service being unimpeded by progress, I’ve witnessed a number of technical changes in the last 25 years (SCBA use, Incident Command, NIST/UL Studies) that it had a significant impact on our operations. The biggest of these however is an overall change in our attitude toward safety. Certainly some people can take extreme examples and make the argument that we’re being “too safe”, but arguments about “going interior” aside, I believe that we can all generally agree that it is no longer acceptable for firefighters to die or get injured because of simple, preventable causes.
There’s certainly plenty to choose from including financial, political, and public opinion challenges, but as a company officer I believe that the biggest challenge facing the fire service is the one that we encounter on a daily basis, having the courage to step up to do the right thing. I enjoy being a friend and brother to the people I work with, but I also have a job to be an officer and I aspire to be a shift commander. These positions demand someone who can recognize when they, or the people on their crew have not lived up to their obligation to “do the right thing”. Doing the right thing can come in many forms, often simple and subtle, and always frighteningly easy to neglect and ignore. The easy thing to do is to just sweep it under the rug and think “I’m everybody’s buddy. I’m not here to give anybody a hard time.” But I believe that when we know what the right thing is, and we, or someone else fails to do it, then every firefighter, especially company officers, have an obligation to say something and correct the problem. I believe that this is the biggest challenge to the fire service because A) it happens 1 million times a day B) it eats away at our integrity silently and C) it affects how we do every aspect of our job.
During all of your years on the job, how were/are you able to push through the darkest of times?
Anyone who’s been in the fire service for a few years will have their fair share of tragic fires and gory rescues, but the calls that haunt me are the ones where I think “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. I can walk away from a heartrending call if I know that we did all there was to do, even if the outcome was a sad one. However, I don’t like to walk away from any situation in life feeling like I’ve let myself down, but in the fire service I feel that it is absolutely unacceptable when we let someone else down. I deal with it and the only way that I know how, a nice, cold… nah, just kidding. I do with those calls by working to figure out how I make sure that the next time around I’m going to step up and get the job done right. Anyone can make a mistake. That’s not a problem. I just want to make sure that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over.
With so many of our firefighters dying each year in the Line of Duty, what are some of the things you do to help ensure “Everyone Goes Home”?
I think it comes back around to what we said above. Most of the life safety initiatives can be looked at as “common sense”, but they are listed not because people don’t know them, but because people don’t do them when they need to. It’s not a matter of memorizing a list of 16 items, it’s a matter of committing yourself to take the extra step and sometimes go out of your way to do things the right way because of the duty that we owe ourselves and our families, as well as our brother and sister firefighters and their families. I’m not going to lie, I strive to live up to these ideals, but I don’t go home from work at the end of every shift feeling like I did everything I could. It’s something I’m still working on and probably will be for my entire career. I just try to keep in mind that when someone avoids buckling their seatbelt in the engine or tries to not participate when we’re drilling on some fundamentals that the job that I’ve committed my life to demands that I ensure that we do the right thing so that everyone goes home at the end of every shift and I’m not left making a phone call to somebody’s wife that I know to explain why her husband is in the hospital for a reason we could’ve prevented.
If you could provide some of the younger generation of firefighters with a few “words of wisdom,” what would they be?
Three things. 1) Hold onto your energy and enthusiasm as long as you can. People who are jealous of it will try to beat it out of you. 2) Learn what the right thing is and do it, every day. 3) Go home safe at the end of every tour.
As the Department EMS coordinator it’s my responsibility to run in-service training on all new EMS equipment. Some years back I was doing training for my own shift on a new IO injection device (it starts an IV directly into your bone, in the center of your chest). I’m kind of known for getting excited about our new gadgets and as terrifying as this thing looked (it was basically handle with 10 small needle sticking out of the end in a circle around one big needle right in the middle) I’ve had a chance to use it on a really critical call and was convinced it was good to make a difference to our patient care. As everyone sat through the training I started to get the usual glazed over look that you get after about the first 20 minutes of medical lecture so I said “Look, I’m going to cut to the chase, this thing looks horrific but it’s going to save lives!” I grabbed one of our paramedic sitting up front. “Where firefighters so I don’t want tell you about it, I want to SHOW you.” I grabbed our paramedic Mike by the shoulders and pushed him back slightly so his back was up against the training room wall. “I’ll show you. When a patient needs an IV, this thing goes straight into their chest in one shot. No more missed IVs. And frankly, a critical patient isn’t even a feel this thing.” And with that I shove the device right into the center of Mike’s chest. It made a loud pop and I pulled it away leaving only the pigtail for the IV sticking straight out of Mike’s chest. Wide-eyed, Mike looked down, turned white as a ghost, and fell to the ground. But everybody didn’t realize is that I had switched the live device for a trainer which only uses an IV connector on a piece of adhesive to look like the real thing. All Mike knew was that I was going to play some kind of trick because I told him quietly “just go with it.” No one made a sound when Mike collapsed and I thought it was because no one was fooled. As it turned out, it was because I caused an entire shift to soil themselves and our shift commander couldn’t decide whether he should jump up to restrain me himself or call for police backup. In the end, as with any good firehouse joke everyone had a good laugh over dinner. To this day, I have at least one shift in my department that will forever pay very close attention to any EMS training session I do.
We would like to thank Lt. Duckworth for taking the time to share his views and experiences with the readers of ModelCityFirefighter.com.